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Jessica J. Lee has always wanted to puzzle out her family’s history; Two Trees Make a Forest chronicles her quest for answers.supplied

While Jessica J. Lee embraces many of the formal Lunar New Year traditions – like cleaning the house, handing out “lucky money” and hosting a feast – she also has some private rituals associated with the celebration.

“Every year, I call my mother to ask her how to prepare egg dumplings. They’re so hard to make, and we go through it together, again and again,” she says with a smile. “These are some of the small things that make us feel really connected.”

Lunar New Year, for Ms. Lee, is about “food, about getting together, about family stories” – it also connects her to her heritage. “You often hear from children of immigrants that it’s especially through the holidays that they know their culture,” she says. “As a Canadian, I grew up in a multicultural and English-speaking environment, but it would be a disservice to ignore the part of myself that spent my childhood eating the dumplings my grandfather made the way it was taught to him by his mother a century ago.”

The idea that our family histories provide valuable insights into our identity inspired Ms. Lee, who has a Welsh father and a Taiwanese mother, to delve into the past of her maternal grandparents. She narrates her discoveries – with abundant skill and sensitivity – in her award-winning book Two Trees Make a Forest.

A key moment that sparked Ms. Lee’s curiosity dates back to her teens. She was napping on the couch in her grandparents’ home in Ontario, when her grandfather woke her and said, “Who are you?”

She could have brushed off the question as a sign of his advancing dementia, yet instead, it took on another meaning. “It was an invitation for me to recognize him for who he was, which was much more than what I’d seen in my childhood,” recalls Ms. Lee. “I soon decided that I had to make more of an effort. I sat down and looked at what I needed to learn, starting with family recipes and holidays – like the Lunar New Year – that were important to my grandparents.”

A few years later, Ms. Lee turned to her grandmother, recorder in hand. “I asked her to tell me about her life, and she had a lot to say. It was really incredible,” she notes. “My grandmother was quite difficult when I was growing up, and I never understood why. Learning more about what she’d lived through, for example, in Nanjing during the Second World War, helped me understand my family’s complicated relationship with their past, identity and culture.”

The stories also gave Ms. Lee an appreciation for her grandmother’s willingness to talk openly about difficult times. “It helped me understand why my grandparents didn’t talk much about our family history when I was growing up,” she says. “My grandfather never spoke about the war or what he went through.”

Her grandfather’s experiences only came to light after his death through the discovery of some of his letters, and Ms. Lee was surprised.

She had known her “gong” at a time when he worked as a janitor for a company producing Chef Boyardee pasta products in Niagara Falls. Yet his journey from China to Taiwan – and eventually to Canada – had not only been more eventful than anticipated, it was also closely linked to some of his homeland’s defining moment. During the Second World War, her grandfather belonged to the Flying Tigers, U.S.-trained pilots who defended the Republic of China against Japanese forces. He then joined the nationalist movement during China’s civil war and left for Taiwan later.

“Learning about his history and reading about his past opened an entire life for me,” says Ms. Lee, who became inspired to improve her Mandarin and travel to Taiwan. There, she applied her lens as an environmental historian to the subject matter.

Connecting with the landscape of her mother’s childhood allowed her to tackle some unanswered questions, she explains. “It was not the easiest book to write, trying to puzzle out what my grandparents left behind in China and what they faced in Taiwan.”

Without spending time in Taiwan, her answers would have been “a bit too simple,” says Ms. Lee. “We need to acknowledge where we come from to find out not only who we are but how to address the racism and injustice that still exist in places with a colonial past, including Canada.”

Her research has deepened the connection to her grandparents. “My time with them has taken on more meaning and depth,” says Ms. Lee. “And I appreciate all they did.”

And memories seem to have become more vivid, she believes, treasured moments of the family gathering around the table for a traditional hot pot dinner celebrating the new year among them. Ms. Lee continues this tradition in the home she shares with her Venezuelan American husband (they currently live in the U.K., where she works as a researcher at Cambridge University).

Another tradition has also taken on a new significance. “I remember it as a magical thing to receive hong bao [lucky money] when I was a child,” says Ms. Lee. “Now, I enjoy it even more as a practice of giving.”


Two Trees Make a Forest, by Jessica J. Lee, which earned the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, is one of the books chosen for Canada Reads in 2021.


Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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